"A New Sense of Direction"
Martin Luther King, from his speech "A New Sense of Direction," given in the last year of his life:
Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep anger of the ghetto into a creative force. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be both longer lasting and more costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. It is a device of social action that is more difficult for the government to quell by superior force. The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win, and their participants know it. Hence riots are not revolutionary but reactionary because they invite defeat. They offer an emotional catharsis, but they must be followed by a sense of futility.
This kind of talk, today, would be immediately met with mass derision in progressive discourse circles, where King (if you stripped away his name) would be accused of not taking white supremacy seriously, of being a centrist, of disrespecting Black rage. And as is always the case with this debate, those critical of riots will be accused (when not being accused of direct complicity with the racist status quo) of prioritizing civility, bipartisanship, order, and respectability politics over the needs of marginalized groups. But read this speech; King is very explicitly making an argument about the efficacy of riots and their alternatives, not an argument about the morality of political violence.
I think that many in the social justice sphere have become so broken down by the cycles of injustice that they have an aversion to tactics that might work - that they have come to so associate their causes with ineffectual discourse politics that they assume that anything that is embraced on tactical grounds must not be a part of their causes. We are the people who lose, so if tactics might work, they must not be for us. I mean, to question the incredibly dubious connection between representation in movies and TV and real progressive social change will get you excommunicated from progressive spaces. (Try saying that the Wonder Woman movies are not a huge blow for social justice in just about any online community.) But to assume away the possibility of real, tangible change through coordinated mass action is ubiquitous. Learned helplessness. Always, learned helplessness.
Of course, anyone has the right to question the argument that riots are less effective than coordinated mass civil disobedience would be. Tactical arguments are arguments, after all. What's unclear to me is whether those tactical arguments have any teeth. A common talking point on the left today is that "riots work." To which I would ask... work to do what? The metrics people use to justify those claims could hardly seem more dubious to me. Certainly the people who risked their lives in riots demanded far more than they got. How fares white supremacy in cities that have witnessed riots? But either way, I would settle for just having a tactical conversation that does not immediately devolve into a meta debate about whose intentions are truly radical, or who is making a play to respectability. Unfortunately these conversations are emotional, inchoate, directionless, and ruled by the petty politics of social association.